Dali meets dictionary at Mass MoCA


NORTH ADAMS -- In 1920s Paris, in a cafe near the Rue Fontaine, a group -- many men and some women -- sit drinking house wine and talking about the subconscious mind.

Little in the world seems rational to them. World War I is only a few years over. They have all lost friends. The sandy-haired man in round glasses works in a neurological ward, treating shell-shock patients with the new Freudian techniques. His wife studied at the Sorbonne. They are arguing now about dreams.

On evenings like this one, the surrealists formed, and met, and talked. As a group of artists, they wanted to get beyond rational thought, to get at what lay behind it -- to express what they didn't know they felt, until they said it -- or drew it, or wrote it. Andre Breton, the student in the neurological ward, studied psychiatry before he became a writer and artist. He and his friends invented games to bring out those hidden thoughts.

On Saturday, Roger Clark Miller will bring those games to Mass MoCA. He will host an evening of writing, drawing and music -- a light-hearted evening, he promised, where people will create sentences and figures they would never make any other way.

Mass MoCA has known Miller for more than 14 years, almost since the museum opened, said Sue Killam, managing director of performing arts.

As keyboardist for the Alloy Orchestra, Miller has composed and improvised scores for silent films. And as vocalist and guitarist, he has performed there with his band, Mission of Burma, to a solid crowd.

Miller discovered surrealism in college, and it has shaped his life and his music since. A college professor introduced him to the movement, he explained. As a student in the ‘60s, he experimented with psychedelic drawing. Surrealism gave him a way of thinking and of making unexpected and colorful connections.

He often records his dreams, he said, and his dream free associations echo in his music.

Surrealism blends dream and reality. In words or images, artists make connections that seem unlikely, or absurd, or impossible, Miller said -- like Salvador Dali's famous limp clocks.

Isidore Ducasse has famously illustrated it as "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," Miller said. Elements that seem to have nothing in common show up in the same sentence or poem. And though they seem to make no sense, as he reads he feels as though he understands. He makes sense from them.

As a movement, surrealism grew out of a time and place in shock after a war, a time when rational rules seemed to have broken down, Miller said. Soldiers pumped up with patriotism marched away to die for no reason. A man could be drinking stewed tea in a mud trench one second and dead the next.

But among the young writers and atists in the ‘20s, surrealism brought playfulness as well, and free association and laughter.

Surrealism fosters improvisation and writing or drawing without thinking, to bring out words of shapes on the page.

In Andre Breton's games, small groups of people work together, following simple rules, to write or draw. Often each adds one piece to something larger without knowing what the rest have done, and then they unfold a sheet of paper to reveal the whole. The results have a Madlibs-like zaniness, Miller said -- time after time, he hears people laughing out loud as they see what they have made. And sometimes what they have made has surprising power.

In the game that gives many of these games their name, Breton and his friends would build a sentence one word at a time, the first offering an adjective, the second a noun and so on, each only knowing the one word they had given. They ended with the sentence: The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.

Miller has played these games since college with friends and family. But playing them in the public eye is a new adventure. He brought them into the open first at the Armory Cafe at the Center for the Arts in Somerville.

And he has found it powerful.

People who have never met, people who know nothing about each other, can make something together out of a shared subconscious. They can share with strangers and bond together. They can make each other laugh.

If you go ...

What: Night of surrealist games with Roger Miller

Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22

Admission: $20 reserved, $12 in advance, $16 on the day of, $10 for students

Information: massmoca.org


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